Coaches often struggle with what kind of punishment to use, or question if they are too strict, or too lax in their discipline.  We all want our team to be motivated and dedicated. You expect your dancers to follow the rules. Sometimes we even live in a beautiful fantasy world where every dancer gives 100% effort at every practice. No one breaks the code of conduct, everyone treats each other with respect no matter what, there are no poor decisions all year…

Of course, we understand that’s a fantasy world and the unfortunate truth is that as a coach you often have to discipline your athletes.


So what is a coach to do when her dancer breaks the rules? What is a coach to do when his athletes blatantly misbehave? Many of us choose to coach how we were coached and that often includes harsh discipline, either for the individual or the whole team. Why? Because it usually works and provides the desired short-term result. But is it the best choice for the long-term goals of your team?

Punishment & Coaching Style

There are many coaching styles and there isn’t a “right” way to be a coach. However, every coaching style comes with choices and consequences. I’m here to let you know about the research in psychology around punishment and performance, discipline, and mental health. Hopefully you can take this information and use it to guide your own coaching style and continue on the path of learning and self-improvement.

The Drawbacks of Punishment

The truth about punishment is that it can control and change behavior, however, there are important drawbacks to consider.

  • Punishment can arouse fear of failure
  • When used incorrectly, punishment can act as a reinforcer, making the poor behavior actually more likely
  • Punishment can create an unpleasant, aversive learning environment
  • Coaches often assume that punishing athletes for making mistakes will eliminate those errors, but it doesn’t necessarily work like that. Making athletes fear mistakes generates anxiety and negative self-talk because the error could be out of their control, so all that’s left is fear.
  • Generally, coaches who use punishment want more effort, but there are much better ways to get it than inducing fear!
  • Sometimes we have to use strong discipline, but 80% to 90% of all of your feedback and reinforcement should be positive

Is Punishment Going to Give You the Result You Want?

Before you choose to impose a punishment, ask yourself why you are disappointed in your athlete. Did she make a mistake that was out of her control? Punishment is never the answer. Did he make a mistake because of mental focus? Teaching him about mental control and being present in the moment will be much more effective in creating a long-term solution than punishing a mistake.

If a dancer makes a mistake on the competition floor, for example missing a key transition that you just re-blocked, stop and ask why. Was she focused on the turn section coming up so she wasn’t present in the moment to perform the changed section correctly? Was she so stressed about disappointing you and forgetting the changes that she actually did forget the change? Jumping straight to punishment won’t fix the problem. Instead, it will become more likely she’ll make the same mistake the next time. Or she’ll live in such fear of making that mistake that it becomes impossible to perform at her best.

Code of Conduct vs. Skill Mistake

When the mistakes are based on the code of conduct rather than skill or sport related mistakes, then punishment often comes into play. Especially if an athlete made a conscious choice to break the rules, then there should be a consequence. So understanding that punishment should only be used sparingly, when you do have to impose a punishment consider the following guidelines:


9 Guidelines for Punishment

1. Include Athletes

Allow athletes to have input in choosing appropriate punishments for breaking the rules. At the beginning of the season, set out expectations. For some rules (as appropriate based on the age of the athlete) have the team come up with punishments they feel fits the crime. It improves team culture and buy-in when it’s a group process. Behaviors and attitudes that are punishable must be identified beforehand at the beginning of the season, every season.

2. Be consistent

Be consistent by giving everyone the same type of punishment for breaking similar rules. Nothing destroys team cohesion faster than “favorites” and punishment enforced inequitably.

3. Punish the behavior, not the person.

When you talk to your athlete about the mistake, talk about your disappointment in the behavior or the choice, not that dancer as a person. It’s all in the language, but that language is important. Remember: What you say becomes their inner voice. Convey to the person that it’s his or her behavior that needs to change.

4. Do not use physical activity as punishment whenever possible.

It’s common to use pushups or running as a punishment. However, for athletes, these types of conditioning activities should be common practice and expected, even dare I say it, enjoyed, as a part of their training. Using physical punishment will mean that anytime you do those activities as part of your physical training, they invoke feelings of annoyance, despair, anger etc. which you never want during training. If it’s part of your regular training regimen it shouldn’t also be a punishment!

5. Make sure the punishment is not perceived as a reward or simply as attention.

What you consider a punishment may not be a punishment for them. Make sure if you ask them to sit out as a punishment, for example, it’s viewed as a punishment and not a relief.

6. Impose punishment impersonally.

Do not berate the person or yell. Simply inform the person of the punishment.

7. Do not embarrass individuals in front of teammates.

Embarrassment destroys team culture. An athlete can apologize to the team for a poor decision if the consequences affect the whole team, but berating in front of the team only causes further damage.

8. Use punishment sparingly, but enforce it when you use it.

The threat of punishment with no followthrough is the same as going through the season with no rules whatsoever. So when called for, enforce the consequences set out at the beginning of the season.

9. Choose punishments wisely.

The best punishments are those that will make them better at what they were having a problem with. If they ask to leave a game early because they have to study for a test tomorrow they aren’t prepared for, then maybe they can leave. However, tomorrow they have to sit out the next practice and write our their school calendar and homework plan for the next week and show you their plan so it won’t happen again. Like my dad always said to me, make the punishment fit the crime.

Teach Accountability


One of the best ways to reduce punishment is to reduce the need for punishment in the first place. I talk about teaching accountability a whole lot more here, but a great start is to help your team write an accountability statement. Click here to download the free worksheet to help you get started.

The Exemplar Coach

One of the most revered coaches in any sport is John Wooden, former basketball coach for UCLA. He won 10 National Basketball Championships and has written many wonderful books on leadership.

A group of researchers followed him and his team for about 30 hours worth of practice and documented his behaviors. They wanted to see how his time was spent with the team. How did he approach discipline? How much did he use praise?

These are the results:

  • 50% of coaching was instruction, teaching about the skills of basketball
  • If you add in the time he spent demonstrating or modeling it was 75% of his coaching
  • He seldom used praise (<7%) He didn’t throw it around all the time, it had to be well deserved and the athletes knew how he felt through other actions
  • No punishment (NONE!)
  • Practice always ended with affection

A few notes about this research

The developmental level of an athlete is relevant. These were college men at the height of their game. When coaching younger athletes, the amount of praise usually goes up. The point, however, is that his coaching is mostly instruction (what to do and how to do it). He encouraged effort and intensity above all. He rarely, if ever, focused on winning, and instead emphasized “doing the best you can, because that’s all that you can do!”

Admittedly this was a snapshot in time and there was punishment involved when it needed to happen, however, it was incredibly rare! Instead, Wooden focused on other tools at his disposal and created a disciplined respectful team culture where punishment was rarely necessary.

Throughout your coaching career, circumstances will arise where discipline feels necessary. If done properly, considering all of the guidelines above, along with your own coaching philosophy and leadership style, you can use punishment very rarely and still have the disciplined, self-motivated team of your dreams.

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